Not just a one-off flop a perennial disaster

10th November 1995 at 00:00
Colin Butler argues for the abolition of key stage 3 tests

Being a National Union of Teachers rep is a mixed blessing at the best of times. Part of the mix is reading the prosings of the general secretary. In broadening the union's basis of consultation, our Doug deserves support. But not when he tries to shore up key stage 3 tests ("We can have tests that are trustworthy," TES, October 20). The fact is that the abolition of KS3 tests would not only not do harm, it would actually benefit education. This can be shown.

We can start by reminding ourselves that not every subject is obliged to undergo KS3 tests - an odd situation in itself. For if these tests are not necessary everywhere, then their claim to be necessary anywhere is undermined.

Is it seriously suggested that the excluded subjects are heading for a fall? Or, if they flourish (as they will), will the tests be removed across the board? In this context, we should remember that fee-paying schools are exempt anyway. I don't see them arguing that it's KS3 tests that keeps them up to scratch.

These tests are taken at age 14. But where are these children going afterwards, that they have to be tested then? The answer is: they will stay right where they are, on track for their GCSEs. That is, they will be moving on to examinations that are publicly accountable annually. GCSE results imply quality control of a school's year-by-year through-put as well as of its 16-plus outturn. If a school or a department is under- achieving, that fact will have been showing up well before now in its published results. External tests at 14 are not going to bring any news there.

The truth is that the GCSE, being a terminal examination, exerts a discipline on department planning much lower down the school. "Teaching to the examination" is, with some justification, a term of abuse; but if heads of departments know what is waiting for their charges at 16, they will automatically include preparation in measured doses for that in their year-on-year syllabuses. They get paid to do no less.

These syllabuses may be requested by heads and governors at any time. And given that they are routinely asked for during inspections and checked against pupils' ongoing work, there is no need for the additional supervention of KS3 tests. The tests can simply disappear, along with their mountains of paper, and the money saved - do I hear Pounds 34million? - can be spent on education instead.

Critics of KS3 tests have got a lot of mileage out of last year's English fiasco, following which, according to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 20,000 14-year-olds were regraded after appeals.

Had all centres appealed, the figure would certainly have been higher. However, one year's flop, while spectacular, is a slender basis for criticism. Indeed, the SCAA is already putting it about that last year's shambles will not be repeated.

The tone of this assurance is apologetic, but the content is unrepentant: KS3 testing will continue. What is more, it will continue in whatever forms the SCAA deems appropriate. That is the rub.

Pupils in the school in which I teach are examined twice a year every year in all their subjects. These in-school examinations are good practice for pupils getting ready for public examinations, but they also tell me their rate of progress across a range of expectations and to what extent the department syllabus is efficient. In other words, by controlling in-school testing, I can maximise the educational gain.

Not so if I am compelled to use the SCAA's blunderbuss. KS3 tests routinely leave out what I want put in; they use a broad-brush approach when I want targeted testing and, with statutory force, they impose whatever whim and fancy happens to be doing the rounds.

An example of the last point is the complete Shakespeare play in English. I was against this from the outset and said so, but, no, it had to be. Yet it was obvious that, if children were to acquire a lifelong love of Shakespeare, more subtle approaches might achieve better results: like cherry-picking the best bits of the oeuvre, for instance. Now it appears that the SCAA is itself having second thoughts, with piloting waiting ministerial approval. For all I know, good may come of this. But second thoughts imply that a mistake has already been centrally devised and centrally imposed.

As long as KS3 testing exists, such impositions will always be on the cards. Bureaucratic centralism can't avoid them. Time for second thoughts, Doug.

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master and NUT rep at Borden Grammar School in Sittingbourne, Kent.

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